When Nashville-based singer-songwriter-artist Kurt Wagner started self-releasing his home recordings on cassettes in the early ’90s, he was one of a throng of musicians participating in the DIY scene that came to be known as indie rock. But Wagner and his band Lambchop persisted where their peers dropped off, signing early with Merge Records (a label that itself outlasted most of its competition) and recording stunningly assured, utterly distinctive albums that have blended classic country, R&B, and musique concrète with the heavily conceptual impulses of modern art and the intimacy of a diary. Because the Lambchop roster grows by the year, the band doesn’t tour much, nor does it record very often as a group. (Though the various members have stayed busy with other projects, and Wagner himself recently collaborated with Cortney Tidwell on a terrific album of obscure country covers under the name of KORT.) The relative scarcity makes each new Lambchop release something of an event, and the just-released LP Mr. M—the band’s first since 2008’s OH (Ohio)—is worthy of the anticipation. Wagner and company worked to create a lush sound with less instrumentation, and as a result came up with a Lambchop record that sounds familiar yet new. Wagner recently spoke with The A.V. Club about how the band achieved this effect, as well as how it feels to be a venerable veteran in a scene that’s produced so few.
The A.V. Club: At this point in your career, how much of the Lambchop part of your life is about managing the business vs. being creative?
Kurt Wagner: The business definitely ramps up whenever a record goes out. I can kiss my life goodbye, basically. When we’re not in that period, it’s a little less demanding. It seems like this time, I’m busier than I ever have been before. I can’t quite figure it out, exactly, but it’s been really crazy.
AVC: Do you think it may be similar to when Superchunk came back recently? That when a band is out of the public eye for a while, fans start to miss it, and maybe appreciate it more?
KW: Yeah, probably. I think that’s one reason why certain record labels encourage you to take a little break for a while. Maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder, something like that. There’s so much music being generated by everyone these days, that… Actually, I was thinking about this the other day. God, we used to put out records every year, and that just doesn’t work anymore. I was trying to figure out why, and maybe it’s because there’s just so much music now, coming out all the time, that the old concept doesn’t exactly work. Some people still do it. Guys like Robert Pollard or Will Oldham, they’re continuously putting out music like crazy. They’ve sort of figured out a way to do it. But they function in a different way, among a myriad of record labels. In my case, I just work with the same two dudes [at Merge in the U.S. and City Slang in Europe].
AVC: Would that be your preference, to be like Robert Pollard and put out three albums a year?
KW: Oh, I don’t have that kind of energy. [Laughs.] I just don’t see how those guys manage to do it. It must be all-consuming for them. I admire them, and I certainly think it’s a great thing they’re so prolific, and in general I really do enjoy everything that they make. But I can’t imagine. It just seems so exhausting.
AVC: I interviewed a veteran cartoonist a few years ago and asked him how he keeps the bills paid between books, and he said that at a certain point, managing his backlist becomes a fairly lucrative full-time job, between making sure everything stays in print and chasing down royalties.
KW: And that’s sort of been the case for me, just by virtue of the way records are reissued, revisited, etc. It’s a living thing that you sort of end up administering to, for as long as there’s still people listening to music and you stay vital. The old music definitely still exists. Maybe not as urgent of an existence, but it’s there, and it does rear its head from time to time.
AVC: It seems that you don’t make a new album unless there’s something specific you’re trying to do. Some conceptual element.
KW: Absolutely. That’s always been the guiding thing that leads to us making the next record, however long that ends up taking. It certainly takes a while between records these days, but again, that could just be me gettin’ old.
AVC: How would you describe the approach to Mr. M?
KW: The thing I was most wanting to do was to try to create an openness of sound, almost a minimal approach to the way we make records. We tried to preserve that throughout the course of the different production things that we did, so that in the end, it’s a sound that’s unique and consistent, regardless of whether it has a lot of strings or other kinds of arrangements.
AVC: You mentioned the openness, which is evident in particular on “The Good Life (Is Wasted),” where there’s almost no melody in the instrumentation, only in the vocal.
KW: Well, actually, I sort of lifted that from Charlie Louvin. [Laughs.] The way the song is structured, the chord progression, all of that. I’d always been mystified by how Louvin Brothers songs work. When Charlie passed away, I started looking at YouTube clips of early Louvin Brothers songs, sitting there with a guitar and kind of strumming along. It suddenly became apparent, like, “Oh, so that’s how he does it.” Because I never understood how the dude changed chords and stuff like that, or even when he decided to do it. It all seemed like a great mystery to me, forever. So that’s kind of where the musical side of that song came from. Once I figured that out, I wrote this song that was, in my perception, a country song. But yeah, I kinda see what you’re saying. I’m not quite sure that that’s necessarily the openness I’m talking about, but it was a fairly basic setup, as far as in the way we did it. I don’t think we added a whole lot to it.
AVC: Maybe “Mr. Met” would be a better example.
KW: “Mr. Met” is kind of one. I actually think if you look through the record’s chronology—I mean, the first song, “If Not I’ll Just Die,” is the template for the concept that Mark [Nevers] and I discussed, and was our first effort at that. The second song, “2B2,” is more of what I’m talking about, though it doesn’t have the string adjunct to it. And then the next song, “Gone Tomorrow,” goes back to more of Marky’s idea, that there’s a sound that’s consistent throughout. You can’t really tell that one song has strings while the other one doesn’t. Or at least that isn’t what’s dominating your interest.
AVC: The songs sort of open up into…
KW: …these long spaces, yeah. These kind of moments that sort of hang, where nothing’s going on. To me that—and the pacing of it—points toward that sound that I was thinking about for this record. I brought that idea to the table. Then Marky had his own ideas about the deconstruction of string sounds, and we sort of put all of that together.
AVC: Did you piece these songs together in the studio, part by part, or were you playing them fairly close to live? Because there are a lot of long instrumental passages on the record that are almost like jams, though they sound more planned-out than spontaneous.
KW: They’re a little bit of both. We didn’t even start tracking with the entire band. It was very stripped-down. Just myself, with the drummer, Scott Martin, and Ryan Norris, who plays a little guitar and a little organ. And that was it. We were just trying to keep it at that minimal openness, with those three pieces interacting. Tracking them as songs, but with the notion that anything could happen to them later, just so long as that stillness, that openness… that somehow we could preserve it, or not smash it down by adding too much into or on top of it. I think it was very helpful to start that way. It’s hard to strip things back, but easy to be additive, as far as what we do is concerned.
AVC: What are the voices on “2B2?”
KW: That’s Cortney Tidwell and myself. I double a lot of vocals on this. It’s something I used to do when I was making little—they weren’t even four-tracks, they were like two-tracks. [Laughs.] But the notion of double vocals was something I used to play with a long time ago on my own, and I really haven’t pursued that very much on any of the Lambchop records that we’ve done. So that was fun. And having Cortney be involved doing background vocals just seemed like a natural thing after we’d been working on all our KORT things.
AVC: I was actually referring to those weird little mumbles on “2B2,” which sound like a piece of old recording.
KW: Oh, the answering-machine thing?
AVC: Is that what it is?
KW: Yeah, that’s Marky’s daughter, Lily. She was on an answering machine on Nixon, when she was an infant. And now she’s a young teenager, and so we got her to call up and do a little piece again. That was something that was important to Mark to add to the song.
AVC: Having done this for so long, do you find that there’s a sense of, “Okay, I know what I’m doing!” when you walk into a studio, or is it new every time?
KW: It doesn’t matter if I think I know what I’m doing; it’s always different, and always a bit of a surprise, and I’m really, really into that. That’s what makes it fun. Definitely you have to allow for that when you make records; it’s just the nature of the collaborative process. You have to sort of realize, “Yeah, it’s going to be different than I think.” Because it always is.
AVC: Have the changes in recording technology affected what you do?
KW: It’s not so much that. It’s just about how ideas grow and develop, and the nature of collaboration, where you work with somebody—or in my case, lots of people—and their ideas come forward and they’re good ideas, so you’re like, “Hey, let’s try that.” Of course, things can get away from you to the point where it’s, “Uhhh….” [Laughs.] So that’s the only thing I try to be aware of, is “Let’s not stray too far.” That’s why it’s very helpful to have a sort of concept in mind before you start, because that keeps you from starting out with good intentions and then ending up creating a 30-minute earth-rock jam. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have much interaction with the younger wave of musicians and bands in Nashville?
KW: To some extent, if nothing else just by virtue of having younger people in Lambchop. They definitely are an important part of what Lambchop’s been over the years. It goes beyond William Tyler. William’s like the grand old man of Nashville now. He’s in his 30s, dude. But Ryan and Scott, they’re still in their 20s, and they started playing with us when they were in their early 20s. Having that connection is important. I mean, I still go to house shows. To me, that’s some of the more interesting music in town. I’d rather go to see stuff like that in Nashville than go to clubs, frankly. To me, the music is much more interesting, and it’s fun, and frankly, it’s more direct. It’s more about music. It’s not about buying drinks and waiting around until midnight to see a band, or paying a lot of money that goes to Ticketmaster. And that’s what’s great about Nashville. There’s still that scene happening here. I learn about it because when they come through town, their friends tell the folks connected with my band. Because, y’know, I’m not on Facebook. [Laughs.]
AVC: Yeah, what’s up with that?
KW: [My wife] Mary does a lot of that for me. I just don’t have enough time, and I don’t really think I have anything to add to the conversation. The Twitter thing works great if you’re a comedian and you’re working on your material. That’s a great way to do it. For me personally, I don’t know what I can contribute.
AVC: Are you a mentoring-type presence to those younger musicians? Or is everything so different now that you wouldn’t really have anything to offer them?
KW: I try to be, when asked. Though maybe the way I learned about things when I was starting out isn’t much help, because stuff is definitely different for people now. So I don’t know how relevant my advice is, but I’m willing to talk to people and try to help them understand how all this crap works. Because it is overwhelming, particularly when you’re in your early 20s and shit’s starting to happen and you’re like, “What do I do first?” [Laughs.] I try to tell them that it’ll all be okay.
AVC: Was there anyone that you tried to model yourself after in that way when you were young?
KW: Oh yeah. I definitely respect very much the way that [Yo La Tengo’s] Ira [Kaplan] and Georgia [Hubley] and James [McNew] do what they do, definitely the way that [Superchunk’s] Mac [McCaughan] and Laura [Ballance] did what they did. Those guys were really important people for me. I could relate to how they went about things. I learned a lot from both of those entities as far as how to go about your business and still respect yourself in the morning.
AVC: Speaking of Mac and Laura and Merge, you’ve obviously had a great relationship with the label throughout your entire career. Was it disappointing that they chose not to put out the KORT record?
KW: I was a little disappointed. I think musically, it was interesting to them, but at the time, they really weren’t quite sure what we would be able to do as far as touring and stuff like that. At the time, we had no idea. I mean, literally, this was just a spontaneous idea. We made a record; we felt really good about it. We felt great. But I don’t know if it was the country thing or just the fact that maybe we weren’t really an entity. This was sort of a one-shot thing that we were trying out, to see what happened. Maybe that was just too vague of an idea for Merge. Or maybe, y’know, it was because they already had She & Him.
AVC: Yes, but KORT is so much better than She & Him.
KW: [Laughs.] Oh, they’re both fine. KORT is just different. I don’t know. I never was privy to the actual discussion about whether or not they were into it. In a lot of ways, that opened a lot of things up for us. What was important to me was if we could’ve actually gotten a Nashville label to put it out. I think that would’ve been aesthetically a great thing. And there was only one independent Nashville label that we approached, and that was Third Man, and they considered it as well, but it was so late in their schedule that they couldn’t fit us in when we needed to have it come out. So, what did we do? William has his own vinyl label, so he put out the vinyl in the U.S. and we just tried to let people know that it existed in the U.S. What it really needed was a label presence behind it, but that didn’t really happen.
But I mean, we just got back from Australia and we did two KORT shows there, and that was the whole reason we were invited. We also ended up doing a quasi-Lambchop show and a solo show, but the main emphasis of it was KORT, because people in Australia had heard the record and wanted us to play down at the festivals. It’s incredible. The response has really, really been good, which is encouraging this late into KORT’s existence, that there’s still that kind of interest in other parts of the world. It’s an awkward thing, though, because it’s the only thing I’ve ever done that Merge isn’t involved with, so it’s like this little black hole. [Laughs.] Occasionally we run into that, where they don’t want to promote something because, “Well, that’s a KORT thing.” But I’m not ruling anything out for the future. Maybe they’ll come around for another KORT record.
AVC: On your upcoming tour, what kind of lineup are you going to have? Do you think you’ll be able to duplicate Mr. M fairly well?
KW: Well, oddly enough, we’ve decided not to tour with strings. We’ve performed live without strings with this small Lambchop lineup before. In the U.S., it’s only going to be five people. In Europe, it’s going to be six, because Cortney’s touring with us, and she’s going to join us for Lambchop’s section as well. But we’ve found that because this album is about the songs and their openness and their sort of minimalist quality… they’re just fine, dude. They sound great. And it’s actually a different sound for Lambchop, which I think is exciting for people as well. And I was shocked at the response in Australia. I mean, we played a whole set of songs they had never heard before—and we hadn’t been to Australia in six years—but they were going nuts from the first song. I was like, “What?” [Laughs.] I really was taken aback. It was very, very encouraging. I feel really good about how we’re going to go about presenting this music.
AVC: Have you guys ever done one of those “We’re going to play one of our old albums from start to finish” tours?
KW: I’ve avoided it like the plague for the most part, but we got a request from City Slang when the label turned 20. They were putting on a big 20th-anniversary bash and asked if we’d consider doing Is A Woman for that, and we agreed mainly because it seemed like a nice thing to do in that kind of context. We ended up doing about 10 or 11 shows, playing that record, and it was fun. And it actually turned out to be sort of informative, too, because it reminded us of stuff we did in the past that we hadn’t remembered, or hadn’t focused on so much recently. That was a good experience, but having gotten something positive out of it is why it was a good experience. I think in general….
Look, in England they’ve been trying to get us to do Nixon forever, and I can’t go there. Just the notion of trying to do that particular record is very difficult for us, economically and physically. I can’t really sing falsetto anymore, and haven’t been able to for years. If they’d just let us approach it in a different way, that might be okay, but I don’t think that’s what they’re asking. It’s just really impossible. I even tried to consider a budget, and it was ridiculous. Too complicated. To truly do it well, I would like to try to include everybody who was involved in the original, which is a whole other logistically crazy thing, with people’s lives and all the different things that have changed. My God. [Laughs.] It’d be easier to do it with a four-piece band.
AVC: That might be a rewarding exercise too, though, to re-imagine Nixon for a four-piece band.
KW: It would be conceptually cool, but I think we’re just setting people up to be disappointed that we didn’t go literal enough. Particularly in Britain. They’re pretty good at finding a reason to get on you about shit. [Laughs.] I understand it, though. As a fan, I would have loved to see Daydream Nation performed by Sonic Youth. That would’ve been awesome, and I would’ve enjoyed it. In their case, maybe that was something they needed to do, again to revisit some aspect of their past creativity in the current time, and see how that fits with who they are now. You can approach it positively, and I think the experience of us doing Is A Woman live did help our approach to this new record, which is a nice, quiet record.
AVC: Thurston and Kim just got divorced though, so maybe playing Daydream Nation re-opened some old wounds or something.
KW: [Laughs.] Oh, I don’t know. These are the elder statesmen of indie rock. I mean, they’ve been doing this longer than most anybody I know. There just comes a point where you have to take a break and address your issues, I guess. Sonic Youth, Superchunk, us—very few bands have just continued on, regardless. Most bands have at least made the attempt of kind of stepping back and de-forming, and then they come back, and that’s one way for them to get back to really performing together as a real band again. We just didn’t ever go away, and neither did Superchunk, and neither did Sonic Youth. We’ve all just continued moving forward, because I don’t think any of us really felt the pressure to do anything but what we wanted to do. Those are great examples of three very independent bands.
AVC: How do you feel about that, that you’re still standing while a lot of the bands you were playing alongside or maybe even opening for are long gone?
KW: I’m just happy that we’re putting out another record and that people seem interested in it. I never really take that for granted, or assume that that’s going to be possible in the future. I try to put out one record at a time and hope that we’re able to make another. It’s getting harder; I gotta be completely honest. It gets harder. A lot of it has to do with economics, dude, and also the amount of music that’s out there at any given time. And you see that from your side as well. How many records are you getting every day? How many bands are playing in your town? How much can any one particular person give to that in their lives? It’s a pretty saturated market.
AVC: What album do you think is your Daydream Nation? What Lambchop record do you think fans see as quintessential? And which would you pick if you had to choose?
KW: My standard answer to this question is that it’s always the most recent album we’ve done. In this case, I’ll say it’s a little record called Mr. M. [Laughs.] I mean, there are definitely peaks to what we’ve done, what I feel are really great Lambchop records. I think our first record was really interesting. I think What Another Man Spills is really good. I think Nixon was good, too. Up to this point, Is A Woman was probably my favorite. It was about 90 percent of a really strong album, and definitely the one I was most comfortable with. I felt good about the songwriting. I felt good about the sound of it. I felt that with one more song in there, it would’ve been really special. I still think it’s really special. I think Aw Cmon and No You Cmon probably should have been one record. [Laughs.] And I think Damaged is a good statement, and an important record to make for us, in that it was a transitional record that maybe gets lost on people because its content is kind of painful.
AVC: Damaged is so good, though.
KW: I think so, too, but I find that people who are close to me have trouble listening to it. [Laughs.] And, y’know, I felt good about OH (Ohio), too. But we worked really hard on this new record, and took a long time to do it, and I think it paid off.